Dinosaurs and other extinct plant and animal life have long captivated our imaginations, although contact with these creatures may seem impossible outside of Jurassic Park. But dinos are actually all around you – and we don't mean catching a glimpse of their descendants on your next bird watching trip. The North American continent is covered in fossil sites featuring ancient critters big and small. Some are found in deserts that were once the floors of ancient oceans; others in urban corridors where, millions of years ago, continents tore apart. 

Whether you've got fossil-obsessed kids at home this summer or you happen to be a fossil junkie yourself, here are some destinations where you can investigate the prehistoric past firsthand. If that piques your curiosity or you want to see what paleontologists are working on, here are some destinations where you can really get to the bottom of your interest in dinosaurs.

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Dinosaur fossils preserved in rock
Dinosaur fossils preserved in rock at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah-Colorado © DEA / C. DANI I. JESKE / Getty Images

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

Located just across the Colorado border in Utah's Unita Mountains, Dinosaur National Monument is considered one of the most well-known fossil hot spots in the entire country. Creatures found here include the stegosaurus, allosaurus and the apatosaurus. Specimens from this region are in many of the world’s most renowned science museums, including the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington and NYC’s Museum of Natural History.

Scope out dinos embedded in the stone of the Carnegie Quarry, and if you head out to McKee Springs, you’ll find petroglyphs created by the Fremont indigenous group over 1000 years ago, the ancestors of the Ute and Shoshone people who live in the area now. Outdoor beauty abounds – head to Harpers Corner for views of canyon country or to Echo Park to see the confluence of the Green and Yampas Rivers.

Where to camp nearby

There are six campgrounds in Dinosaur National Monument itself, but if you prefer a turnkey glamping site with a tent already set up, head to nearby Vernal, Utah to camp in Steinaker State Park or Red Fleet State Park.

USA, Nebraska, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Enhancement)
Fossil Hills Trails in Sioux County, Nebraska © Tom Bean / Getty Images

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

While dinosaurs may get all the glory, mammals take the stage at Agate Fossil Beds; here, 20-million-year-old mammals were discovered beneath the earth’s surface, beasts such as the moropus (think: hybrid of a donkey and anteater), the dinohyus (a boar as big as a bison) and the Bear Dog (self explanatory). 

Take the Fossil Hills Trail to see the quarries where some of the monument’s most important fossils were found in the early 1900s, or hop onto the Daemonelix Trail to see outdoor fossil exhibits that feature the bizarre petrified homes of the ancient palaeocastor, the dry land beaver. Visit with a charged phone and a full tank of gas, though – this location takes social distancing to the max. 

Where to camp nearby 

There's no camping at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, but you can find sites at Toadstool Geologic Park – where you can continue to learn about ancient fossils.

Field of Dinosaur Tracks
Dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut © mcpuckette / Getty Images

Dinosaur State Park, Connecticut

Dinosaur State Park is one of the largest dinosaur track sites on the continent, home to 3500 dinosaur tracks made during the Jurassic period. The best examples are housed in the Exhibit Center, a geodesic dome that serves as a centerpiece of the park; as a note, the center is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, so bookmark this spot for later. In the meantime, explore the trails surrounding the center, which exhibit volcanic rock and flora that was believed to be present here during the dinosaur era. 

Where to stay nearby

There's no camping in Dinosaur State Park, just a day-use picnic pavilion. But you can find nearby vacation rentals, which makes this a great choice for those who prefer an indoorsy vibe.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado, USA
Petrified Redwood in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado © Peter Unger / Getty Images

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado

Scientific studies of the rich fossil deposits at Florissant began in the late 1800s and are still going today, as paleontologists continue to uncover the puzzle pieces of the area’s history. Recent research projects have investigated volcanic ash, fossil insects, new fossil plant species, petrified forest stumps and more. So if you’ve ever wanted to visit a working fossil site, Florissant is about as close as you can get.  

Fossil enthusiasts will enjoy the outdoor exhibits, which feature petrified stumps of ancient forests, and a geologic trail that highlights the earth’s forces that shaped the area encompassed in the national monument. 

Where to camp nearby

There's no camping in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, but you can find sites in Mueller State Park or Pike National Forest. A little further away is 100 Mile Overlook at 105 West Ranch, a private site where the tent is already set up with glamping amenities. 

Big Brook Preserve, New Jersey

We’ve talked about ancient dinosaurs, plants and mammals, but what about sharks? Big Brook Preserve is a hot spot for finding Cretaceous-era fossilized shark teeth, as it was submerged by the ocean at that period. Besides shark teeth, scientists have discovered bones and teeth belonging to mosasaurs (giant aquatic reptiles that could reach 50ft long), plesiosaurs (inspiration for the Loch Ness Monster) and giant crocodiles.

Big Brook’s namesake waterways have carved into the soil to reveal all of these fossils, which exist in abundance. You’ll have the opportunity to pick through the creek beds yourself to find small pieces of the past. But there are rules: you can only keep five fossils a day, you aren’t allowed to dig for them, and your sifting screen can only be 18 inches wide. If you find a really good one, consider donating it to a local museum.

Where to stay nearby 

Like Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut, there's no camping near Big Brook Preserve – this isn't the rural corner of Jersey. That said, there's a bevy of great hotels in nearby Middletown like Oyster Point, a boutique spot with marina views.

Erosion formations in the Badlands National Park © NaughtyNut / Shutterstock

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The dramatic rock formations of Badlands National Park have harbored ancient animals of all kinds, and the winds of time have worn away enough of the earth for us to take a peek. Fauna such as the oreodont (a bit like a capybara/donkey hybrid), the Nimvarid (known as false saber-toothed cats) and the brontothere (ancient rhinoceri) all roamed these lands, and paleontologists have taken note. 

The park visitors center features a working paleontology lab that you can visit (though this is currently closed due to COVID), and the region is recognized as one of the best places for fossils in the country. Outdoor activities include hiking through the vast geological history, scenic drives and night sky viewing.

Where to camp nearby

There is plenty of camping in Badlands National Park, but if you want to go further afield, Plenty Star Ranch is near Wind Cave National Park in Custer, South Dakota – giving you a two-for-one punch on parks.

Montour Preserve, Pennsylvania

The Montour Preserve Fossil Pit is a testament of a more watery era of the continent’s history, featuring a huge concentration of fossilized brachiopods, gastropods, trilobites and more. Visitors are allowed to gather their own fossils and are advised to bring their own basic tools – a small hammer, safety goggles and a brush. For the best experience, visit early in the morning, before the rocks heat up in the afternoon sun. 

Where to camp nearby

Camping isn't allowed at Mountour Preserve, which is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But nearby Barakah Heritage Farm offers backcountry camping if you bring your own gear – though a tent is available to rent if this is a one-time foray. It also offers the chance to turn your Montour Preserve visit into a broader educational experience with a hands-on farm stay optional add-on.

You may also like: 

Traversing Bears Ears: adventuring through a sacred land  
Find your green getaway at these overlooked US national forests  
Why Navarre Beach is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets for eco-adventures  

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